Over the final few weeks of the offseason, most of the energy that wasn’t spent analyzing the whats, whys, and hows of everything Alex Rodriguez does has been focused on Major League Baseball’s ever-growing average game length. In the past 40 years, average game has gone from 2:29 to 3:08, despite zero significant rule changes in that time. That is an increase of 39 minutes, a full 26 percent.
There have been some terrible suggestions. Last summer, Dan Bickley of AZCentral suggested shortening games to seven innings. The deliciously ironic thing is that in the same column where he accused baseball of being out of touch, he thought the best solution to long, boring games was to remove 22 percent of the actual action.
I’m not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last, but the problem is not, and never has been, that games are too long. The problem is that the games are too slow.
As a lifelong, diehard baseball fan, the last thing I want to see is less baseball played. I root for extra innings at every game I go to because it’s free baseball. I’d root even harder for extras if the first nine only took 2:30.
This morning, MLB announced three new rules to help the game pace:
- Managers will ask for replay challenges from the dugout.
- Batters can no longer step completely out of the box between pitches in many circumstances.
- Play begins as soon as the TV broadcast returns from commercial break.
Going in reverse order, I don’t have much of an opinion on the commercial break thing, simply because I have no idea if this is an issue or not. I watch hundreds of games every season on television, but I have never noticed a lag between the return from commercial and the beginning of the next inning. That doesn’t mean it’s not an issue; it just means I haven’t noticed it. If we are wasting 20 seconds every half-inning, this change could save five or six minutes per game.
Keeping batters in the box will, I think, have a pretty major impact (depending of course on how you define “major”). Pitchers will generally not start looking in for the sign until the batter is in the box and ready to go, so while we often put all the blame of the length between pitches on the pitchers, it will certainly help to speed that up if the batters will get ready to go more quickly. With an average of about 300 pitches per game, cutting down the average time between pitches by just three seconds could cut as much as 15 minutes off the game time — without removing one second of baseball.
And the there’s the manager replay challenge. I am strongly in favor of instant replay. I think there is no excuse to get a large number of calls wrong when the technology exists to get them right. But why a manager challenge? Why replicate the replay system that is widely despised in the NFL? Why put the onus of challenging a call on the person who is in the worst position of anyone to actually see with his own eyes whether a call was blown? And why limit the number of potential call corrections when there is no way to limit the number of potential blown calls?
When I am watching a game on TV at home, 90 percent of the time that there is a bad call, I know it before the next pitch is thrown. Replays show up on my screen within seconds, and I can see that a tag was missed or a ball was fair or whatever the case may be. That means that an umpire sitting in the press box would be able to see it too. Hire a few extra umpires, so every crew has five umps instead of four. In every game, you have the four umpires on the field and one in the press box. If the box ump sees a blown call, he gets on the headset to the crew chief and informs him of the change. Corrections are made, and the game goes on.
This solution saves time, because it eliminates the pointless pomp and circumstance of bringing out the 1989 car phone and calling New York, where they spend three minutes looking and re-looking at every possible angle. I’d be fine with an option for the box ump to initiate a 30-second timeout to take a closer look — he can see a lot in 30 seconds, and the 30 seconds could start immediately because he would be in position already to look at the replays. I think this would catch 90 percent of blown calls, without adding much time, if any, to the game. It’s hard to imagine the umpires fighting this too hard, since it creates more jobs for them and gives each of them a little break every fifth game.
But yes, keeping the managers in the dugout is a good step if we’re really committed to the silly challenge system, and it should save a minute or two per game.
WHAT ARE WE MISSING?
I think there is one solution that is too often glossed over, and it would address not just the pace of game issue, but also two related issues: what Rob Neyer calls the “Strikeout Scourge” and the decline in scoring.
The solution: new roster rules. Limit every team to an 11-man pitching staff. Or ten, but that might be pushing it.
Right now, most teams generally go with a 12-man pitching staff, which means a seven-man bullpen. There was a rumor yesterday that the Royals are considering an eight-man bullpen for 2015. Limiting teams to a six-man bullpen has these effects:
- The Strikeout Scourge. As it stands, bullpens are full of hard-throwing relief pitchers who often know they only have to face one or two batters, so they can let it all hang out and throw as hard as possible for those eight or nine pitches. The seventh through ninth innings are just a succession of fireballers, often with platoon advantages, going for strikeout after strikeout. Remove one or two guys from the bullpen, and all of a sudden managers have to start letting guys go a little longer, face a couple extra batters. That means the pitchers have to hold a little in reserve, knowing they might be needed for 20 or 30 pitches. It also means that starters stay in games a little longer, even when they’ve lost a bit of effectiveness, because managers can’t treat the bullpen as a never-ending resource. Voila, fewer strikeouts!
- Declining offense. Obviously, this is related to the previous point, but there’s another aspect to it. If there are one or two roster spots that are not going to the bullpen, those spots will be going to hitters to come off the bench. So not only would the pitchers be throwing a little less hard, they would also be facing hitters who are a little more rested and often have the platoon advantage. Suddenly, the late-inning balance of power will have shifted from the pitchers to the hitters. (And seriously, of all teams to consider an eight-man bullpen, why would it be the Royals, who have several truly lights-out relievers and a couple of players who provide no offensive value other than pinch running?)
- Pace of game. The thing that started all of this. Imagine if games averaged three fewer pitching changes. From the time a manager starts his slow stroll to the mound to the time the reliever throws his first real pitch, each pitching change takes upwards of three minutes. So our imaginary game with three fewer changes is about ten minutes shorter. In addition, strikeouts generally take more pitches (and therefore more time) than groundouts, or even base hits. Even with the increased offense, time would be cut and action would be increased.
People have recommended changing the rules to limit the number of pitching changes, or force relievers to face a certain number of hitters, or whatever. I am not really in favor of changes to the rules of the game. What I am recommending is a change to the rules of roster composition, and let each manager deal with it in his own way.
Ultimately, it is good to see Commissioner Manfred taking innovative steps to address the issue of pace, and it gives me hope that he will eventually find the right combination of solutions.